Healthy Frustration

So far today, I’ve had a student cancel an appointment that I cleared two appointment slots for because they needed a non-standard meeting time, I’ve realized that another hasn’t shown up yet because they rescheduled their appointment without cancelling the first one, and received a voicemail from a student who plans to “just drop by”…right in the middle of one of the appointments that hasn’t been cancelled. It’s not even 9:00. I. Am. Frustrated.

It’s very significant for me that I just put those words in writing, because it’s very unusual for me to give myself permission to be frustrated with my students. I feel guilty for not giving them the benefit of the doubt, which is one of my fundamental values as an advisor. Students are people, assume good intent. That sentiment seems very hollow when I’m telling a student for the third time that I don’t have access to their financial aid information, or when someone leaves a frantic voicemail but doesn’t tell me who they are or how to reach them. I feel conflicted between gratitude that I’ve successfully built the kind of relationships where my students feel comfortable coming to me when they need help and defeat that they haven’t picked up on the skills to find the answers on their own.

My role is to teach them to navigate college, not to be Siri: Higher Ed Edition. What will they do when I’m not there?

That line of thinking is where I start to find some clarity in my frustration, and see what function it’s serving for me as an advisor and an educator. After I give myself a moment to mentally growl at the inconvenience of an unprepared student, I’m ready to start asking myself why they were unprepared. What was supposed to happen that didn’t, an action on my part that may have empowered my student to not frustrate me? With my twice-booked student, I realized that the instructions I provided on the new scheduling system told students that they can reschedule online, but doesn’t give any instruction on how. My student did what they knew how to do: added a new appointment time. This tells me that just showing students the “reschedule” button (a simple fix) can reduce the chances of it happening again. Looking back, I can think of many times when the frustration of students behaving in a way that I didn’t expect led me to change how I was teaching the skill, therefore solving the problem. If I dismissed all of the frustrating little inconveniences that stem from student errors as “oh well, stuff happens,” I would be missing a chance to identify holes in my way of teaching these students to be self-sufficient. Whether I missed the boat in general or this particular student just needs a little bit more, my frustration tells me that a need that I’d thought was addressed isn’t, and it gives me a chance to change that.

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Sometimes, though, there is no need. Sometimes things went exactly the way that they were supposed to, and my frustration is a check on my own expectations. The student who left the voicemail about dropping in is a perfect example. I’ve told my students many, many times that they are welcome to drop by and see if I’m available when they’re on campus. Not only did this student believe me, they gave me advance notice so I had the opportunity to let them know that I didn’t expect to be available at that time, but would be later in the day. In all fairness to the student, their behavior indicated that they heard, understood, and could follow my policy as taught. My frustration just drew my attention to a downside of that policy: accepting drop ins means that occasionally someone is going to drop in at a time that’s inconvenient for me. The students know that too, and it’s not really that big of a deal. Ultimately my desire to be available to my students outweighs the awkwardness of a badly timed drop in every so often. I’ve made an intentional choice to accept that occasional frustration. So I allowed myself to feel it, then let it go, accepting minor frustrations as a natural and acceptable consequence of how I’ve prioritized my time.

Finally, today’s frustrations pointed out that yes, oh well, stuff happens with students. Adaptability has been a hard won quality for me. It’s not in my nature to roll effortlessly with change, but it makes my work so much better when I do. Sometimes babies get sick, work calls them in, the car breaks down, they forget things, or they just can’t manage to bring themselves to get out of bed today. They’ll eventually work it out, and in the meantime, we’ll both survive. It’s ok to give myself permission to be frustrated with a last minute cancellation, but it helps to realize that it’s rarely a problem to have more time open than expected.

Last minute cancellations and no-shows are a great time to move out of that back-to-back mindset and regroup.

Yes, it would be great to have been able to open that time up to another student, but isn’t that what happened anyway? Just because I’d planned to use it in one capacity doesn’t preclude me from using it to help students in some other way, like returning calls, working on projects, or reaching out to see how things are going with a few students I haven’t talked to in a while. Why be frustrated? Time back in my day is a gift!

While it’s essential, both to be the best advisor I can be and for my own mental health, not to let negative feelings fester, I’m finding that acknowledging frustration can help me to be better at what I do. Frustration, like any other emotion, can be a healthy source of information about the current situation. Letting myself get a little annoyed, then asking myself if and how I’m going to change the situation, makes me appreciate my question asking, appointment cancelling, message leaving students even more than I already do.